If you asked someone to describe what makes a good NBA offense, you’ll likely hear the following things: quick pace, excellent ball movement and all-around team play leading to assisted field goals, balanced scoring, lots of 3-pointers, lots of dunks, and lots of free throws. The Toronto Raptors currently have the fifth best offense in the league, and for the most part, their offense contains none of those things.
Let me address the obvious before I’m crucified. Yes, the Raptors are phenomenal at getting to the line. They attempt 26.4 free throws per game — the fourth most in the NBA — thanks in large part to DeMar DeRozan’s uncanny ability to draw fouls on everything from legitimate hacks to inadvertent breaths blown in his general direction.
They’re also a terrific 3-point shooting team, overall. They attempt only 23.1 3-pointers per game — good for 16th in the league — but convert on them at an absurd rate of 36.6 percent. The only teams ahead of the Raptors in 3-point percentage are the Golden State Warriors (big surprise!) and San Antonio Spurs. Those two teams are widely regarded as having a couple of the best offenses in the NBA.
But unlike the Spurs and Warriors, the Raptors don’t rely on meaningful ball movement to shift defenses. Their assist percentage — the percentage of the Raptors’ made field goals that are assisted — is 29th in the NBA, at 50.5 percent. Their mark of 37.1 potential assists (passes that either are assists, would be assists if the receiving player made the shot, or would be assists if the receiving player wasn’t fouled) is also 29th in the league, ahead of only the lowly Los Angeles Lakers. It should be noted that the Raptors are about league-average in total passes per game. They’re passing the ball just fine; they’re just not passing with purpose.
We often see this when DeRozan or Lowry isolate after coming off a pick. They’ll try to break down their man and fail, which forces them to lob the ball over the top to reset the offense. But instead of running a new play, they’ll get the ball back a second later and try to do the same thing all over again.
We have the stats to back that up, too. Raptors players hold the ball for an average of 2.89 seconds per touch, good for 25th in the league. They also dribble the ball an average of 2.5 times per touch. That’s 29th in the NBA, ahead of (behind?) only the Detroit Pistons. Basically, when a Raptor gets the ball, that Raptor, on average, keeps the ball for nearly three seconds and dribbles the ball about three times. (If you have some time, dig around here.) It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the Raptors play at the fourth slowest pace in the NBA. That’s generally what happens when you don’t pass with purpose and hold the ball for too long.
But wait, you might say. The Raptors have the fifth best offense in the league, right? Why does this even matter?
That’s a great question, and there’s no simple answer to it. To their credit, DeRozan and Lowry are phenomenal offensive players adept at creating their own shots and making the correct pass when a teammate is open. They’re not playmakers in the traditional sense, but their collective court vision and willingness to pass are suffice, and ensure that the offense isn’t outright stagnant or predictable. It’s worked well in the regular season.
But what happens in the playoffs, when teams spend weeks scouting just you and making bold adjustments specific to your tendencies? That’s a concern. While this year’s Raptors squad is undoubtedly better than last year’s, the offense is mostly the same. When the Raptors were swept by the Wizards last season, they scored an average of 96.5 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 45.9 percent, well below their regular season marks of 102.3 points per game and 50.8 percent. The Wizards not only locked down on Lowry and DeRozan, effectively taking them out of their respective games, but played to their tendencies and prevented the Raptors from making the passes they wanted to make. The Raptors’ perimeter duo sported an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.85 in the playoffs, down from 2.19 in the regular season.
My concern is that this year’s playoffs will echo those of years past. I suspect they’ll make it out of the first round this time by virtue of how dominant they’ve been against the bottom of the East. They could quite possibly make it out of the second round as well depending on who they match up with. Unfortunately, their weaknesses from last season are still here, as the Raptors continue to be heavily dependent on Lowry and DeRozan carrying the offense. But when the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics gameplan specifically to take those two out of their games, who do the Raptors have that can step up? Is there another dimension to the offense we’re not aware of?
Jonas Valanciunas is a relatively reliable scorer in the post, but he struggles with double teams and has terrible court vision. He’s often a defensive liability, too, especially against smaller lineups. DeMarre Carroll seems to be a great system player, but we haven’t seen much of him. Historically, he hasn’t been a player teams can depend on to get the offense going. Terrence Ross is much improved at creating his own shot, but he’s still not consistent enough to be relied on. Joseph can occasionally spark an offense, but that’s not something that happens regularly.
But hey, maybe the Raptors are aware of this. It’s possible head coach Dwane Casey’s got a bag of tricks he’s saving for the playoffs, or that one of the Raptors’ youngsters is ready to break out given the opportunity. Or heck, maybe the Raptors are so good that none of this even matters. This is all speculation, after all.
I try to be optimistic. I think I’m generally a positive person who sees the best in things. But with this team, as constructed, I see the same problems I saw last year. And that worries me. I’ll be watching this team closely as we approach the playoffs, looking for any new wrinkles in the offense that could steer the Raptors away from what happened last season.
And if I see something, I’ll be sure to let you know. Until then, though, I’m hedging my bets on the Raptors’ playoff success.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted